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US Defends Cuba Policy in Wake of Dissident Arrests

US Defends Cuba Policy in Wake of Dissident Arrests
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Cuban dissidents say last week’s detention of activists by Cuban authorities demonstrates what they call the fallacy of U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with the communist nation and relax some restrictions on travel and trade. The Obama administration maintains its new policy eventually will help bring change to Cuba.

Cuba’s “Ladies in White” are demanding the release of political prisoners and improved human rights. But they don’t believe the U.S. president's opening to Havana will bring freedom, says leader Berta Soler.

“Obama thought this would favor the Cuban people, but that’s not the case," she said. "Everything that comes out of this renewal of ties will benefit the Cuban government and not the Cuban people.”

Dissidents say the arrest of Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera last week is an example of the continuing repression. Bruguera - and some 50 others - were detained for planning an event in Havana’s Revolution Square to push for freedom of expression. Authorities later released her and some of the other activists.

Washington condemned the detentions. But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was pressed Monday to defend the new U.S. policy.

"One of the reasons why we moved forward with the change in policy is because we want to empower Cuban citizens to give them greater ability to promote positive change going forward," she said. "And a critical focus of our announced actions include continued strong focus on improved human rights conditions, of which we know that the situation in Cuba remains poor."

Yet she acknowledged to reporters there is still no word on the release of 53 Cuban political prisoners Havana promised would be freed following President Obama's announcement normalizing relations.

Critics of the opening include prominent U.S. lawmakers of both parties who say Obama got little in return from Havana in exchange for easing parts of the decades-long economic embargo, including allowing U.S. telecommunications investments.

An editorial in the Washington Post newspaper pointed to Bruguera’s detention as evidence the president should have demanded protections for pro-democracy activists in return for his overture.

But it is in Cuba where dissidents, such as Elizardo Sanchez, feel most discouraged.

“We do not see any sign that the government is willing to make the reforms the country needs….so everything will continue more or less the same as it has been in previous years,” he said.

January 1 marked 56 years since Fidel Castro swept into power and launched the Cuban Revolution. Today, ordinary Cubans are waiting to see if the new U.S. policy will have any impact on their daily lives or on the Caribbean island's communist government.